Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free): The Gate Entrance, Watchtower and Block 24
Updated: May 29
Our guide, Lukas, collected us from the waiting area, passed out headphones so we could hear him speak, and then took us to the entrance of Auschwitz I.
The Albeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) sign, made famous in many books, movies, and documentaries, is a replica. To learn why, read the appalling excerpt below.
“The inscription 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (work makes you free) was placed at the entrances of several Nazi German concentration camps and ghettos: Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Flossenburg, Gross-Rosen, and Theresienstadt.
The Auschwitz inscription was made in mid-1940. The Kapo of the camp metal workshop, Kurt Muller, designed it by drawing its characteristic shape on the ground. It was made from pipes being used to expand the camp’s running-water network. A Polish prisoner, the master artistic blacksmith Jan Liwacz, made the letters.
The letter B was attached upside down, which some prisoners interpreted as an act of resistance aimed at the duplicity of the slogan above the gate. It is more probable, however, that the reversed welding of the letter was merely accidental.
Auschwitz Prisoners on the Day of Their Liberation
After the liberation of Auschwitz, Soviet military authorities ruled the grounds of the camp. They treated the property there as spoils of war and sent it to the Soviet Union. According to an account by Eugeniusz Nosal, a former prisoner, Soviet soldiers loaded the inscription on a train car and prepared to ship it along with other items.
Nosal claimed to have bribed a guard with a bottle of moonshine vodka, recovered the inscription, and hid it. The inscription returned to its place when the Museum was set up.
In December 2009, it was stolen and cut up into pieces on orders from a Swedish neo-Nazi. Secured forty-eight hours later, it was repaired, reassembled, and conserved. A replica of the original now hangs above the gate."
Auschwitz I - The First Watchtower
The First Watchtower
The watchtower to the left is the first one you see as you enter the Auschwitz I gate.
“At first, guard towers of a simple construction were placed around the fences of the Auschwitz I and Birkenau camps. Four wooden posts supported an observation platform surrounded by a barrier and covered with a roof. Two SS men were usually on duty there at night – one to operate the spotlight and the other, the machine gun.
At the end of 1943, the towers began to be replaced by new ones, fully walled and filled with windows. German companies manufactured the prefabricated components and delivered them by train to the camp. Construction was completed in the spring of 1944. Larger towers, measuring 4.5m x 4.5m at their base and 11.6m high, stood at the corners of the camp; smaller ones, measuring 3m x 3m and 7m high, were placed along the fence.
Aside from the towers, numerous air-raid shelters, with concrete vaults covered by bricks and an earthen layer, were also built. During air raids, the guards hiding there could open fire on prisoners who tried to escape when the fences were damaged."
Auschwitz I: Block 24
Block 24 is on your left as you enter the gate of Auschwitz I. Known as a brothel during the concentration camp's operation, it was a perverse prisoner incentive system and control method. An SS doctor, Sigfried Schwela, introduced the brothel to Auschwitz in October 1941; he was also responsible for the health of the women forced to work there.
Block 24 Is on Your Left, Just Past the Gate, as You Enter Auschwitz I
Non-Jewish prisoners used the brothel as a reward; the Nazis used it to incentivize prisoners' work and as a tool for the SS to gather intelligence. Each coupon was worth fifteen minutes; many inmates traded them for food. Peepholes in the doors allowed Nazi guards to prevent violence against the women who worked there.
The women forced into sexual slavery in the brothel were primarily non-Jewish women from Nazi-occupied countries. Nazi doctors oversaw the women's health; each worker underwent sterilization before being assigned to the block. The Nazis and camp Kapos (prisoners who acted as overseers) who ran the brothel forced women to see six to eight men a day; and according to some accounts, sometimes up to twenty.
Auschwitz I: Block 24 - Side Entrance
I prefer not to go into any more details about Block 24; they're not only lurid and disturbing, but also heart wrenching. If your research requires in-depth detail, I recommend researching historical documents, books, media sources, and other resources. Use "Auschwitz Block 24" as your search term.
Thus, the existence and operation of the brothel in Auschwitz, like all aspects of the Holocaust, is yet another reminder of the horrendous violation of human rights and dignity. The women involved were victims of sexual violence and exploitation; most were used in this way until they perished.
Block 24 is closed to the public; it currently houses a few offices and storage rooms. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has chosen to keep it closed out of respect for the victims and the sensitivity of the issues involved. Please check the current status from the official website or other reliable sources.
Auschwitz I: Outside Block 24 - Remembrance Marker for the Executed
On the right front corner of Block 24 was a black marker with text in three languages. The photo above shows the marker's location. The English translation says, "The corpses of prisoners that while trying to escape were often displayed here as a warning to others."
My next post will about Auschwitz I: Blocks 3 and 4.